Gardening: Coleus, the Hawaiian shirt of plants

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

In the next few weeks I’m going to begin taking cuttings from plants to propagate and grow in the OPC atrium over the winter. At the top of my list is coleus – I think of them as the Joseph’s coats or Hawaiian shirts of the plant world.   

Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) is a genus of some 60 species of evergreen, bushy, erect-to-spreading sub-shrubby perennials that originated in the forests of tropical Asia and Africa.

Most folks use them as container plants in summer, but they’re also a quick fix for planting in gardens in need of color, especially later in the season when flowering annuals are long gone from garden centers and mums won’t do the job.

Evergreen and tender perennials are the magic words for me as coleus can be grown as a houseplant as well as outdoors.

A couple of years ago we transplanted a number of these colorful characters into the OPC atrium in fall and they put on a colorful show for a several seasons when a disease took them out.  To my delight some seedlings appeared from nowhere this summer and seem to be thriving.

Coleus offers color in the landscape late in the season.

Renowned coleus breeder and owner of Baker’s Acres greenhouse in the Columbus, Ohio area, told me the seeds of this plant can remain viable for as long as 5 years. While my plants will not look exactly like the hybrid parent plant, the leaves are very colorful and worth keeping. Baker told me the secret to success when collecting seeds is to allow the seedpods to dry to brown while on the plant.   Also, the seeds need light to germinate so scatter them on the surface of the potting soil when sowing.

When bringing plants indoors from the garden insects, such as aphids, mealy bugs, scale and white flies are often transported with them.  So many gardeners prefer to take cuttings, which are easier to isolate from other plants, treat and possibly discard should a problem arise. The good news is coleus is a snap to propagate this way. In water it begins to root in as little as 5 days.  Transplant into containers when the roots reach 2 inches or so in length.  You can also root the cuttings directly in damp potting soil.

Google “how to grow coleus from cuttings” to find videos that take the mystery out propagating and growing coleus indoors. Who knows, you may get hooked on growing them like Chris Baker who currently has 150 varieties growing in his Ohio greenhouse.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at